Cinematic Translation on Film and Paper: A Case Study

Eugene H. Hayworth

The American film version of the novel Jakob the Liar opens with a scene that departs from the events described in the book, but depicts one of the key themes of the novel through a visual metaphor. The actor Robin Williams, as the protagonist Jakob, darts and dashes madly through the early evening streets, chasing an elusive sheet of newspaper, when he is suddenly halted by a German guard who insists that he has missed the curfew and must report to the military office for punishment. Jakob and the others who live in his village do not have access to news, and the possibility of catching the windblown newspaper sets the tone of the film, not quite comic, but tinged with a gentle humor that contrasts sharply with the tragic events of the story. The scene represents the cinematographer’s translation of the images a reader might imagine while reading the text.

The original novel Jakob der Lügner was written by the East German Jewish author Jurek Becker (1937-1997). It recounts the story of Jakob Heym, a Polish Jew living in the ghetto of Łódź during the German occupation of World War II. Jakob is detained one evening while hurrying home before the curfew. He is caught in the spotlight by a German sentry who insists Jakob report to headquarters for his punishment. While he is inside the military complex, Jakob overhears a radio report about a nearby Russian victory over the Germans. Circumstances compel him to share this optimistic news with the other villagers, who feel hopeless in the face of starvation or possible deportation to the death camps. Jakob first reveals news of the victory to distract Misha, a companion at work, from the foolish act of stealing potatoes under the watchful eye of the German guards. At first Misha does not believe his friend, but Jakob assures him that he heard the broadcast himself, on the radio. News rapidly spreads that Jakob has access to a hidden, strictly forbidden radio. Quickly he becomes a hero, and he must continue to fabricate

stories about the impending Russian liberation.

The novel resulted in two films. The first, Jakob der Lügner, a DEFA film co-production with GDR-Television, was directed by Frank Beyer and released in 1975. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 1976. The American version with Robin Williams was released by Columbia Pictures in 1999. In contrast to the American film, the German version opens with a scene depicting Jakob, prominent yellow six-pointed stars on the front and back of his tattered jacket, visiting an attic room, where he wipes the feverish sweat from the forehead of Lena, a young orphaned girl he is caring for. Several of the opening images are interspersed with frames of text: “Die geschichte von Jakob dem Lügner hat sich niemals so zugetragen”, and, “Ganz bestimmt nicht.(The story of Jacob the Liar never happened. Certainly not.”) Text serves an important function throughout this version of the movie, providing details that create a framework for the story. After leaving the attic Jakob takes a walk through the town, and a neighbor warns him to be home before eight o’clock. As he wanders the streets there are several flashbacks that show him in happier times at work in his restaurant and visiting his fiancée. When he is spotted by the sentry and ordered to report to the military office, a sign on the door he is forced to enter proclaims, “Fur Juden Eintritt Streng Verboten” (“For Jews, entry strictly forbidden”), a detail which is not included in the novel, but signifies Jakob’s predicament and its potential consequences.

Both films take liberties with the original story, but that is an essential part of constructing a cohesive visual narrative from any text. When a film is based on a novel, a play, a biography, or any other form of literature, the process of creating the film is generally referred to as “adaptation,” which is loosely defined as “the act of adjusting or modifying fittingly.” But “adapting” may not be the best way to describe such a process. To adapt a thing makes it usable: a chimpanzee adapts a stick to create a tool for procuring food. Translation, on the other hand, underscores the importance of meaning. The definition of translation, “a change or conversion to another form, appearance, etc.; transformation” suggests that translation is a more narrow form of adaptation, and one more closely related to the process of cinematic

transformation. There is an added layer of complication in the process—rarely is one individual responsible for making these translation decisions. The screenwriter brings the dialogue to life, the director organizes the action and narrative structure, the cinematographer constructs compelling visual imagery, and even the actors translate the meaning of the dialogue through tone, gestures and facial expressions.

Consider this same scene in print, from the text of two different versions. Jakob der Lügner was first translated into English by Melvin Kornfeld in 1975. Leila Vennewitz completed a new English translation in 1990, which was published in 1996. How do the translators interpret the scene?

Es ist also Abend. Fragt nicht nach der genauen Uhrzeit, die wissen nur die Deutschen, wir haben keine Uhren. Es ist vor einer guten Weile dunkel geworden, in ein paar Fenstern brennt Licht, das muβ genügen. Jakob beeilt sich, er hat nicht mehr viel Zeit, es ist schon vor einer sehr guten Weile dunkel geworden. Und auf einmal hat er überhaupt keine Zeit mehr, nicht eine halbe Sekunde, den es wird hell um ihn. (Becker)

So it is evening. Don’t ask the exact time, only the Germans know that; we have no clocks or watches. It’s been dark for some time now, a few windows show light: that’s all I can tell you. Jacob is hurrying, there’s not much time left, it’s been dark for quite a while. Then suddenly there’s no time at all, not even half a second, for there he is, bathed in light. (Vennewitz)

Now compare Vennewitz’s translation to the earlier version by Kornfeld:

Well…it’s evening. Don’t ask me the exact time. Only the Germans know that. We have no watches. It’s been dark now for a while. In a few windows the lights are on. That’ll have to do. Jacob is in a hurry. He doesn’t have much time left. It’s been dark for quite some time. And suddenly, he doesn’t have any time left at all. Not even half a second, because all around him things suddenly light up. (Kornfeld)

There is a cinematic quality to each of these passages, even though they contain significant differences in tone and structure. The first difference a reader might notice between these two excerpts is the pacing created by the two types of sentence structures. Kornfeld clips the sentences, emphasizing the fact that Jacob is hurrying on his way. The prose moves swiftly along until that final sentence, Jacob caught in the

spotlight, when he is suddenly revealed and time seems to stop. Vennewitz, on the other hand, emphasizes the story-telling nature of the prose, introducing the “I” narrator who “can tell you,” in contrast to the passive “me” mentioned in Kornfeld’s text. The long, interrupted sentences conjure up the nervous nature of the situation. Both passages effectively bring to mind images of the light and darkness.

The act of translating a text from one language into another is much like the process of making a book into a film. But the translator does the work of the cinematographer, the director, the scriptwriter and the actors all at once. The visual scenes evoked by the text in the reader’s imagination are analogous to the scenes of a movie. And, in the same way the two cinematic versions of Jakob Der Lüger differ, the two literary translations of the novel exhibit significant variations that reflect the choices each translator made to bring the text to life.

An effective translation must help the reader visualize the story as it happens, must make the images jump off the page, and the translator must accomplish this using only words on paper. A thorough knowledge of the original and secondary languages (their history, idioms, and grammatical structure) is just one of the skills a literary translator must possess. A word for word translation would result in joyless reading. Translators must also rely on imagination and the aptitude for choosing just the right meaning of a word: “…there he is, bathed in light” has a much different effect than “…all around him things suddenly light up.” By selecting specific words that serve as visual clues, by the use of particular adjectives and adverbs and verbs of motion, the translator creates a mood much in the same way colors and music in a film help evoke emotional reactions to a scene.

Whether a book is used as the basis for a movie or for translation into another language, the shape of the entire work must also be taken into consideration. Those who are involved in translating a book into a motion picture look, not for phrases, sentences or paragraphs, but for scenes which can be organized into a meaningful whole. Likewise, when working with a text, a translator cannot labor word by word, but must consider the largest possible unit of meaning. A sentence, a phrase, an idiomatic expression, are more than

just the sum of their parts. The German idiom, “Tomaten auf den Augen haben,” literally “to have tomatoes on your eyes,is more aptly expressed by the English phrase, “to be oblivious to what is going around you.” To be oblivious to the larger structure of a book can ruin an otherwise notable translation.

Neither a film translation nor a translation in print can ever capture the full magnitude of an original work of literature, but for individuals who do not have the necessary language skills to read a foreign text like Jakob Der Lügner, or for those who simply find enjoyment in contemplating a work of literature from various perspectives, watching one of the motion pictures or reading one of the translations can be truly satisfying. The multiple approaches taken to recast Becker’s novel, which imagines and humanizes the unimaginable, open it to a wide array of interpretations. There is much more to consider than can be covered in such a short blog. From a cinematic perspective, on film or on paper, the rich imagery of Jakob Der Lügner invites further examination.


IMAGE: By Source, Fair use,

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